Travel: In pilgrims' footsteps through Italian countryside
YOU don't have to be a walking enthusiast to enjoy a trek in Italy. Even those who dislike walking will change their mind as they ramble through glorious countryside and happen upon hilltop villages of infinite charm.
Italy boasts a number of famous walks, including the Cinque Terre, and now, according to active travel specialist UTracks, it is only a matter of time before Italy's pilgrimage walk, the Via Francigena, becomes as popular as the Camino Way.
UTracks general manager Kate Baker says they are experiencing a surge in interest for Italy's answer to the Camino de Santiago.
"More and more travellers are embarking on this long distance hike from high up in the Alps to St Peter's Cathedral in Rome," Ms Baker said.
As one of the three most important pilgrimage routes in Europe alongside the Camino de Santiago and the peace trail of the Jerusalem Way (which is currently not possible as the route goes through Syria), the Via Francigena has been gaining some serious attention. UTracks' records show that bookings for their Via Francigena walking tours are up 26% this year from last year.
"Part of the appeal of the Via Francigena is that it welcomes about 1200 walkers a year as opposed to the 200,000 plus on the Camino," Ms Baker said.
"And unlike the Camino, which resulted in many towns springing up along the French route, the Via Francigena was structured to run from abbey to abbey, meandering through Italy's spectacular countryside and classic historical towns and cities such as Parma, Siena, Florence, Lucca, Orvieto and Rome.
"We can confidently report that walking routes that are not only picturesque, but also culturally and historically rich, are of high interest among our clients.
"Routes that offer authentic gourmet experiences are also increasingly becoming a significant deciding factor when picking tours. All of these considerations have no doubt contributed to the growing interest in the Via Francigena."
Ms Baker says that it is only a matter of time before the Via Francigena becomes as popular as the Camino, noting that the Camino started off with about 1800 visitors a year in the 1980s. With best-selling books and a Hollywood movie espousing the trail's beauty and spiritual benefits, the numbers soon soared.
Pilgrims walking the Via Francigena will receive a "credential'', which is stamped en route to the holy city. Upon arrival and provided they have walked 100km consecutively to reach Rome, they will receive their Testimonium. This is the counterpart of the Compostela, which is obtained on completion of the Camino de Santiago. Historically, this document was important for the pilgrim on his return home to prove that the pilgrimage was fulfilled, and his vows discharged.
So if you appreciate unspoilt scenery, the luxury of space and the ability to fully experience the true essence of the Via Francigena, consider doing the walk sooner rather than later, that is, before the masses set in.
UTracks offers nine Via Francigena walking tours, eight of which cover sections from the St Bernard Pass on the Swiss border to St Peter's in Rome.
While the seven-day tours are proving most popular at this stage, the 14-day Food Lover's itinerary is rapidly becoming a favourite as it includes a variety of food and wine tastings, cooking classes and the opportunity to indulge in some of the best products and dishes Italy has to offer.
Visit www.utracks.com or call 1300 303 368 for more information.